18 October 2011

Singles, churches, and Scripture

by Dan Phillips

I married later than many do... which is to say, I was older than 18. It meant that I got to experience church life for some time as a single, as many pastors do not. I learned some things, developed some thoughts.

For one thing, I found that many otherwise-good churches seem to have forgotten what it's like to be single. A lot of activities assume that one is married, which one wasn't, and one felt left out. It is true that couples and families should be addressed and served by the church's corporate activities and by the preaching, but it's no less true that the singles should be encouraged and instructed.

For instance, a series lifting out the Bible's teaching to husbands, wives, parents and children would not be uncommon. But a series for singles? Too depressing? Too limited?

An unintended consequence is that many get the impression that the Bible just doesn't have much to say to singles except, well, don't have sex. Which it does say. So we hear that, and that you should pray that God will guide you to That Special One whom God has chosen and prepared for you and expects you to find or you're out of luck for the rest of your life — which, parenthetically, the Bible doesn't say.

There is no doubt that marriages (and marrieds) need a lot of help from Scripture. What I would propose, however, is that they might be just a skosh less needy of churches preached the Word about marriage with a constant eye to the unmarrieds. Many go into marriage with unrealistic and un-Biblical expectations. Worse, they approach marriage with the thought that Scripture really doesn't offer much in particular to them as singles.

This was brought to my mind lately by an unmarried reader who wrote me about sharing part of God's Wisdom in Proverbs with a group of unmarried folks. In page 199, I relate this:
Valerie and I heard a sad story once from a local church. Its women’s group was considering what book to use next for a Bible study. Someone proposed a very good book on being a Christian wife. It was summarily rejected. Why? “We don’t want the unmarried women to feel left out.”

My dear wife and I were aghast. What poor reasoning! Those were the very people who might profit most from such a study.
In fact, in the book, I practice what I'm suggesting here. There are separate chapters devoted at some length to relationships (Chapter 6), to marriage (Chapter 7), and to raising children (Chapter 8). In studying Proverbs, I don't forget to relate to those who are not yet married, trying to equip them with specific Biblical instruction to help them both in thinking about the whole issue of singleness and marriage, and in approaching the critical process of mate-selection.

So in that way I both move to try to meet the need I'm pointing to here, and trying to set a model as to how churches could do the same thing. You could say I practice what I preach about preaching. And now, you could say, I'm preaching about practicing what I pr... okay, you sharp cookies get it.

In sum, as Paul ranges across the categories in his instructions and exhortations (cf. 1 Tim. 5:1ff; Titus 2:1ff.), so should the pulpit ministry and the fellowship activities of the local church.

There is a companion-post over at my place today, for singles only. The meta to this post here is open, and I'd particularly like to encourage pastors to share their thoughts or responses to the need to enfold singles in the church's ministry.

Have at it.

UPDATE: partly due to the lively discussion in the meta of the first post Over There, I've added a second post devoted to the subject of Jeffing.

Dan Phillips's signature

42 comments:

Robert said...

Good post and this is definitely a great need. May Scripture lead us all as we try to minister to the needs of singles and married folk alike.

Tom said...

I work with college-aged single adults (18-23ish) at my church. Most of them are dealing with the stresses of school, work, newly-found responsibility, relationships, future, etc. To be honest, many of them still have the youth-group mentality and lack maturity.

So, perhaps your post isn't necessarily addressed to this group of single adults, but the implications are the same: bringing Scripture to bear on their life experiences and helping them to grow in biblical maturity and make wise decisions that aren't plagued by Blackaby-style paralyzing fear of getting out of God's will.

In addition, we encourage them to serve actively in the church and participate in the ministries our church offers. They are part of the body and need to be using their gifts to help edify the body.

Tom Chantry said...

My background: I was married at the age of 34, after being in several churches as a young single and an aging single. I was even in the pastorate while single, which is itself another topic entirely. I certainly track what you're saying.

You are in the right in emphasizing that the answer is in full, proper application of the Scripture.

An unintended consequence is that many get the impression that the Bible just doesn't have much to say to singles except, well, don't have sex. Which it does say. So we hear that, and that you should pray that God will guide you to That Special One whom God has chosen and prepared for you and expects you to find or you're out of luck for the rest of your life — which, parenthetically, the Bible doesn't say.

So yes, it's about what the Bible does and doesn't say.

Might I add, when singleness is addressed, it tends to be addressed in terms of I Corinthians 7:25-40, and this, I believe, is a great mistake. Such discussions tend to center on the "gift of singleness" - which, I believe, is to miss Paul's larger point. Too little attention is given to verses 17-24, which are really the theme of the whole chapter. Single Christians need to recognize that every situation, whether it is one desired or not desired, has its opportunities for service to God. The single Christian who asks himself, "How might I serve God in the circumstances in which I now find myself?" is more likely to live a holy single life, more likely to marry well, and more likely to live a holy married life.

DJP said...

Excellent point, Bro. Chantry.

Robert said...

Tom Chantry,

I'd like to echo your thoughts and say that if I had that attitude when I was a single Christian (which was only about a year), it would have saved me from some of the issues I have dealt with in marriage. While God has still seen fit to mature me and grow me through trials, some things would have been much less painful if they had been handled while I was single.

When I look at my own trials and read what you and Dan have written here (and as I prepare to read through Chapters 6-8 of "God's Wisdom in Proverbs"), I see this as an encouragement for me in how I raise my children and minister to other Christians. I hope that we all look at the opportunities we have to disciple young men so that they are fairly mature Christians before marriage. It just seems that if we want good marriages that this should be fundamental.

Robert said...

Eeek...I should have written disciple young men and women (by men and women respectively, depending on relation to and age)...didn't mean to leave out women

Si Hollett said...

Tom Chantry - I think the problem is that 'the gift of singleness' isn't that we focus too much on that bit, it's that we read that in a weird way. We've turned the gift of singleness into something that only a few people have - some sort of asexuality - rather than simply being single.

You are right to talk about looking at the other bits - they help explain why singleness is a gift. We need, pastorally, to hammer home that singleness is a gift, because we (rightly) talk about how great marriage is - much of the church's political engagement is to promote marriage, and if we don't also promote (celbate - goes without saying) singleness as a good thing as well, it leaves single people feeling like they have 'second best' by not being married.

Tom Chantry said...

We've turned the gift of singleness into something that only a few people have - some sort of asexuality - rather than simply being single.

I certainly agree. The "gift of singleness" isn't even mentioned in that passage, Paul merely says, "I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another" in verse 7. The point is that God has put each of us into a circumstance of His own sovereign choosing, and each circumstance is a gift - not a talent, but a divine present to us - an opportunity to serve God.

I think that I would moderate somewhat the rest of your comment, though. If we affirm that God has sovereignly appointed each man and each woman to his/her station in life, then we can say that each person has his gift and his opportunity to serve, and we can still affirm the unique privilege of marriage, to which the Scriptures regularly attest. Marriage is the normal state of life, and the church should not shrink from that in a day of "lifestyle choices." It is the most common path through which God blesses our service, and single Christians ought to seek marriage in most circumstances. However, whatever circumstance you find yourself in is from God, and He may be served with contentment even if you do not find yourself where you long to be.

Char said...

I find the component that is lacking in a lot of teaching is the gift of celibacy (not to be confused with that stupid "gift of singleness" junk). As a happy celibate, I know how hard it is for christians to admit it's okay to remain as such and not be defined by the marriage issue. Even the assumption that teaching about marriage would profit unmarried persons shows the bias against celibacy in assuming one day they will be married.

That said, having a women's study on marriage would be acceptable not because everyone would profit, but because most women are or want to get married. And more importantly it's pretty insulting to the unmarried to assume that we're just so VERY PATHETIC AND SAD about our lives that we can't stand sitting through people talking about marriage. ugh.

I don't like baseball. I don't insist that no one ever talk about it in my presence in case I feel bad. As long as we're not being totally excluded, I think we can all accept that not everything has to be about us.

Having said all that, I'm about as likely to attend a women's study as I am to get married. So maybe not the best person to give an opinion.

DJP said...

Char! Long time, no see. Welcome back.

Matt Aznoe said...

I also didn't get married until I was thirty. One of the things I noticed was how singles were often overlooked for ministries within the church. There was little to no chance of becoming a deacon, and the emphasis seemed to be driving people toward marriage as if that was the ultimate goal of any real Christian.

The tragedy is that I ended up wasting my twenties trying to find a girl and meet people instead of using my youth and strength to spread the gospel. We need to stop putting so much emphasis on marriage and "proper" dating, and focus more on setting our minds and hearts on Jesus Christ and building the kingdom of God. God will bring men and women together in His time (if it is His will) if they are whole-heartedly following Him.

As a little side note, the Bible never actually condemns pre-marital sex even though this is the most frequent example of "sexual immorality" cited. The reason: because there is no such thing, Biblically, as "pre-marital sex". The act of sex is marriage, so the sin of youth who "sleep around" is actually adultery, not pre-marital sex. How that would change our perspective as a church and a culture if we embraced that point of view (along with a Biblical view of divorce)?

DJP said...

Yeah, Matt, that's DEAD-wrong about marriage and sex.

Get the Proverbs book. It'll offer some help there and in a few dozen other places.

Sergius Martin-George said...

@ Robert:

How can one be single for "only about a year?"

You must have married at an extremely early age.

Matt Aznoe said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom Chantry said...

I believe Robert must mean he was married at the age of thirteen - about a year after entering manhood (in biblical terms).

Tom Chantry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DJP said...

OK, now we're done with Matt and his Disastrous Detour Du Jour.

Read the Proverbs book, Matt, slowly and attentively. Who knows, might do you good.

But you're done with that line here. Note that I, once again, have not stuttered and be assured that I do, once again, mean it.

Sir Brass said...

Well, I was going to say something but then Tom Chantry went and said it all but better. And him being a pastor on top of that, I'll just keep quiet aside from a hearty reformed baptist "Amen." (that is: firm nod, inside voice, stoic countenance =p)

Tom, thanks for the encouragement. Though don't take this the wrong way, but I do NOT want to be 34 by the time I finally marry :P. I want to have the energy to play with my kids and enjoy grandkids while I still have health in my life. I know that this may not be in the Lord's decree, but that is known only to Him.

But I do try and use the time the Lord has given me. My profile gives some details as to what I use my "singleness" for, so I won't repeat it here, but I'm able to be useful and helpful and have been able to step in to take over in certain areas b/c of the time available to me as a single man. That is, volunteer a great deal of my time while still working 40 hours/week.

It used to be that I was distinctly discontent with being single. I've kind of grown past that now. One might say that I've grown accustomed to my state. Doesn't mean I want to stay like this, though.

Tom Chantry said...

A further reflection on DJP's post:

In sum, as Paul ranges across the categories in his instructions and exhortations (cf. 1 Tim. 5:1ff; Titus 2:1ff.), so should the pulpit ministry and the fellowship activities of the local church.

To those two passages I would add an even longer example: Ephesians 5:22-6:4. Even aside from series on marriage or series on singleness, Paul demonstrates a capacity to think outside his own personal box in the application of the gospel. Paul was never a slave, probably never a master, and certainly never a wife. Yet he regularly applied gospel principles to these groups within the church. It is very tempting for me to make every application toward those who are fathers of young boys, since that is the current challenge in my walk with Christ. I wonder how many pastors have the same tendency - perhaps even unwittingly.

This is a good reminder on many levels, Dan. The members of the church face many different circumstances and struggles, and the ministry of the Word is to be directed to all of them. If preaching took this into account with regard to the singles of the church, your primary question (How can the church best minister to singles) will be largely answered.

Sir Brass said...

Tom, as one who hears that very kind of preaching you're encouraging, I can sum it up in a few words:

Preach The Word. Preach it accurately, preach it faithfully and when the text allows, make application of it to the lives of your congregants. You know their lives (at least I hope you, Mr. Pastor Dude, do), so you know a bit about what kind of application needs to be made. Do so. But only when the text allows it. Just make sure you properly exposit it first.

Do that, and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

And as one who sits under such preaching, I can tell you that there is no greater blessing which you can give your congregation (with respect to the blessing you bring from teaching the Word faithfully) than to do that.

Rachael Starke said...

One of the things that I've recently become both frustrated and concerned about as it relates to singles in the church is why we relegate immature twenty-somethings, at the very age when they need intensive mentoring in adult Christian living, to ministering to the very group that they seem to want to behave most like - IOW, jr. high and high school kids. With a daughter soon approaching jr. high age....

((pausing to breathe slowly into a paper bag))

the very last group of "women" I want being an outside influence on my daughter are the girls not much older, with little to no experience themselves in the tough battle life of adult Christian womanhood (judging by their incessant FB postings about all the movies and concerts and group coffee dates they go on, in the name of "ministry and fellowship").

What might happen if single people were more truly made to feel like the family of God that we are, by better incorporating them into the "real" family life of the church - get rid of age-segregated (blind leading the blind) Bible studies, incorporate singles into the really sacrificial ministries like the nursery and kids' Sunday School, moving and home help for single moms and widows, etc.

Phil and I were both "adopted" by spiritual families during our single years. We were involved in holidays, frequently babysat (for free, BTW), saw marital and kid issued up , all up close and personal. Even then, the adjustment to marriage (especially marriage while parenting) was tough. But those homes were our spiritual labs, not the jr. high dept.

Robert said...

Sergius & Tom,

I think that the term Christian is what clarifies my remark. TWTG has much to say about the term "dead" in chapter 3. And that also gives one the idea of how and when one comes to life. I'll just say that I've only been alive in those terms for about 6 years now, while I walked around like a zombie for about 33 years.

Tom Chantry said...

Robert,

Sorry, but it's just more fun to interpret your remarks through the filter of our own ignorance.

*fingers in my ears*

La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laaaaaa!

Robert said...

Rachael,

One might add that you have a solid basis from the Bible in Titus 2. My wife told me that the speaker at our church's women's conference talked about how the more piritually mature women there disciple the less spiritually mature women and that it has worked beautifully. One of the elder's wives is supposed to be contacting her to find out how they started and maintained that so that the women can do it at our church as well.

That said, I want to encourage you and other women to develop relationships with both your daughters and the younger women in the faith at your congregations. Same goes for the men...just think about how we were at that age and how much we could have used some guidance from strong adult Christians.

wv:throthro

Robert said...

Well, at least I can know that something I said made somebody smile!

Herding Grasshoppers said...

Oh, Rachael... YES!

As the mother of three boys (10 - 15) I feel the same. There seems to be a pattern in many churches of using the HS kids to help run the MS youth group, and the college kids to run the HS group, etc. NO THANK YOU. The last thing I want is an "adultescent", more interested in video games and extreme sports, "mentoring" my young men. (That's not directed at any of the commenters here, btw.)

But what to do with the singles?

Stop segregating them as a separate group, IMHO.

I love seeing the families in our little congregation welcoming college students with open arms, "adopting" older singles as aunties and uncles (and grampas and grammas), and generally treating them as part of the church family. I'm sure we don't do it perfectly, but I think everyone is better served.

Churches seem to face challenges on both sides. On the one hand, those of us with families can tend to clump up with other families, and singles can be left out. That's our fault.

But all too often singles expect special treatment - a Sunday school class and/or activities devoted just for them and their perceived needs. My own sister, 44 and single, chooses a local "mega-church" because the smaller, more Bibley churches "don't have anything for me."

Oh, yes, they do. The Bible, for starters. And godly older women, to mentor her. *sigh*

And Dan, if this isn't too far afield, to what extent do you think this whole idea of the 'gift of singleness' is influenced by our current cultural disposition toward marrying later, as opposed to being a Biblical model?

Was it just a cultural norm that nearly everyone in Bible times married, or is that the "normal" Biblical model, and singleness the exception?

If the Biblical 'norm' is marriage, are singles ministries (when they're not a glorified dating service) leading people away from that?

I'm not sure I'm asking the question very clearly... my mind is a bit boggled today by the aforementioned young men (children-are-a=blessing, repeat 10 times and breathe slowly).

Julie

DJP said...

Ohh Julie, Julie Julie, you don't want to ask me that.

Because then you'd have me saying that I think that some (not all!) of the people who claim to have the gift of being single just have the "gift" of being self-centered and hidebound, and you'd get me in all sorts of trouble.

And nobody wants that.

Solameanie said...

Interesting post and discussion. Having just turned 51 (and still happily single), it's been a curious experience through the years encountering those who insist there is something wrong with you because you're not out out on the hunt pining for a mate. I even had a Russian brother in Christ (a pastor and leader BTW) tell me that if I was in one of their churches, I could expect a visit from their elders as to why I wasn't married yet.

I chuckled, but then as I thought about it a bit more, I grew irritated. I'm not on the market and have no intention of being on the market, and am quite content not being on the market. Of course, marriage is the norm and is a divinely ordained institution, but I do not see that everyone is COMMANDED to be married. Yet there are those who want to turn that into an argument at the first opportunity they have to force a discussion on the subject. If you're not married, then you MUST be a homosexual or some other space oddity. It's almost as if they'd have greater piece of mind if you were living in sin rather than simply being happier alone.

As an aside, one reason I quit going to so-called singles groups in my late 20s was because it seemed like more of a meat market than it was genuine Christian fellowship. That's putting it somewhat crudely, but you get the idea. I wanted to be seen as a friend and brother, not as a prospect.

Scooter said...

I'm coming at this post as a recently married, 28yo man (2 months tomorrow :-D), and one who spend almost 8 years of his Christian life as a single.

Dan I really appreciate your struggle to emphasize there's more to being a single than "Don't have sex." Here's my honest thoughts on the matter (and I've rewritten this comment 3x so far): It seems to me that single treat life in the church like Facebook, that is to add and subtract friends at will. Unless you are in the same place where singles are gathering, then you miss out on whatever plans are made. Unless you are really intentional to let people know you were leaving, it's like no one really noticed you were gone. There is reality of a flock is missing, you wonder where it wandered off.

Yeah, having 6,180 Facebook friends will keep your social calendar busy at night, but I'm wondering how that will help you to be Christian and practicing basic Christian discipleship in loving one other. And I can say that because I've recently realized that I was 100% guilty of doing these exact same things.

Sergius Martin-George said...

@ Robert

I'm with Tom on this one. But thanks for clarifying just the same. ;)

Robert said...

Check that - something I said made two people smile! 8o) Between that and today being my eldest son's 10th birthday, this is shaping up to be a pretty good day so far.

Plus, I just finished Chapter 6 and started Chapter 7 of "God's Wisdom in Proverbs"! Anybody on here who has not ordered this book needs to click the link and do so pronto. While nothing can take the place of being discipled in the church, this book can definitely serve to help any single see what the Bible says about identifying, building, and maintaining good relationships.

Sir Brass said...

"Stop segregating them as a separate group, IMHO."

YES. And to clarify my last comment on preaching the Word, that was in respect to how to minister to us singles (either by choice or circumstance). Minister to us and treat us like adults, just like you would with married folks. We're all adults there, just some are in different life circumstances. Still, preach the Word.

We "singles" are adult Christians who happen to be single. Minister to us like adult Christians. Believe it or not, it (at least in my case) helps alleviate for a short time the pangs of loneliness for those of us who are single by circumstance and not by choice. We want to be treated as brothers and sisters in Christ, not special cases who happen to be brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, there is a difference.

Kathy said...

Our experience as missionaries has been that the biggest obstacle to an effective ministry that encompasses both singles and marrieds is the failure to put in practice the one another commands of the New Testament. Many of the conflicts that we had to help resolve between single and married women among our coworkers boiled down to "She just doesn't understand how hard I have it." Perhaps it's simplistic, but I believe that if we come to minister to others rather than to be ministered to, we will avoid much of this single/married segregation, and the genuine needs of all will be addressed.

DJP said...

Wow, four hours and no "boom."

< thump, thump >

Is this thing working?

donsands said...

((pausing to breathe slowly into a paper bag))-Rachael

That was a nice chuckle for me.

I know a SSA Christian brother who is celibate because he loves Christ, and understands His grace and truth. He brings glory to His Lord. And most likely has treasure in heaven. I pray for all our young brothers and sisters in Christ to be strong in His grace and might and Spirit as they serve Him and grow mature in His knowledge and grace. Amen.

BTW, I have been married 39 years, and 11-12 of those years I was an unregenerate fool. I have been a regenerated saint, and sometimes foolish Christian the last 27-28 years.

He's still working on me.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGjrqV-EOfg

CR said...

Good post, Dan.

Sir Aaron said...

This post is not directed at anybody here, but I have experience with many singles. I find more often than not, they'll tell me how hard they have it but are completely unwilling to listen to advice. This isn't true of just older singles but especially younger ones.

For example, I know several young men and young women. They have zero practical skills. I'm talking about not knowing how to cook, fix things, etc. I try to tell them...your spouse is not going to care if you have a masters in Divinity if you can't prepare a family meal. "Man can't live by bread alone" is not the verse I'd use to attract a mate. (and btw I say this to men and women).

In my opinion, singles need to spend less time hanging with each other and more time finding a mentor. The same is true for work. You don't get ahead by hanging out with other newbies. You get ahead by being mentored by a successful persons. Singles often dismiss us married folk because they think we don't remember what it was like. But in reality we have something they don't. That's the perfect vision of hindsight.

Jim Pemberton said...

I still like the way Elisabeth "Elliot" Gren put it (to paraphrase): "If you are single, then you are called to be single. If you are married, then you are called to be married." The idea is based on the consideration that God has placed us where we are for a purpose whether single or married and echoes Paul's admonition to find peace in leading the life that God has assigned (1 Cor 7:17). That doesn't mean that singles shouldn't marry, but that our source of peace is Christ, not a spouse.

Matthew Celestis said...

Jim Pemberton, would you say that unemployed people are called to be umemployed?

Jim Pemberton said...

Matthew. I would say that one's identity as "unemployed" is a bit of a false construct. The Bible talks about employment, but not unemployment. That is, we are either employed by someone else, or we work for ourselves. We are to be productive according to our means and our abilities. So I would say that we are all called, not to be particularly employed or unemployed, but to be productive. The reason is because God has given us each some set of gifts to use. We must use them.

Sharon said...

@Solameanie, I take a bit of comfort in knowing there is (at least) one other never-marred 50-something Pyro-participant hanging around the water cooler. So much can be said on the subject, and here I logged in to this meta late!

I'll leave you all with something a wise (single) friend told me: "It's better to go through life wanting what you don't have rather than having what you don't want." True, dat.

justajen said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the thoughts. I definitely agree with the fact that Scripture needs to be encouraged and edified by all walks of life within the Church, especially when it comes to singles and marriage.